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This Island Earth
cast: Rex Reason, Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Lance Fuller, and Russell Johnson

director: Joseph M. Newman

86 minutes (unrated) 1955
Universal NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
After being mysteriously rescued from a potential plane crash, scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) is sent some electronic components from an unknown supply company, along with detailed instructions for constructing an 'interocitor'. Once completed, he discovers that it is a highly advanced communication device, the building of which has served as an intelligence test. Meacham is invited by the strange Exeter (Jeff Morrow) to join a group of mysterious scientists who are apparently working to end all war through research and an accumulation of uranium.

His curiosity piqued, he agrees and boards an automated plane to an unnamed destination. Encountering an old flame, Dr Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), upon arrival proves a minor distraction as Exeter shortly reveals his real plans. A representative of Metaluna, a planet under attack from galactic neighbours, and which requires huge amounts of energy to defend itself, Exeter has suddenly been instructed to return home. In a last desperate attempt to revitalise their defences, he brings Meacham and Adams along.

"This Island Earth has everything against it," as Raymond Durgnat wrote in his notable extended treatment of the film. For him it was fantasy, science fiction "slanted at adolescents... a routine product from a studio with no intellectual pretensions, it has no auteurs, its artistic 'texture' is largely mediocre - and for all that, it has a genuine charge of poetry and of significant social feeling." The average fan may express it in a different way, but the affection remains. The merciless editing-down and treatment a few years back at the hands of the MST3K team notwithstanding, This Island Earth is a film still remembered fondly by those who treasure the SF cinema of the 1950s, and celebrate the peculiar axis where pulp meets poetry.
I built an interocitor chased by a bug-eyed monster
Unusually for this period, This Island Earth is a SF film made in colour - in fact one of the last films to made using three-strip Technicolor, the bright vividness of which adds a garish sense of realism to the surreal events on show. Only War Of The Worlds (1953) or Forbidden Planet (1956), out of those contemporary productions I can think of had comparable impact. Even more notable is the film's view of atomic research, the benefits of which it is optimistic. Such a stance was of a piece with the times: in 1954, just the year before Raymond Jones' novel was adapted to the screen, the first controlled fission reactor appeared, which promised North Americans a seemingly endless supply of electricity. Cal Meacham, hero of the piece (a slightly wooden actor, something of a poor man's Stewart Granger) is introduced to viewers as one with an apt "far away, visionary look." He's currently investigating the industrial application of nuclear power, the unlimited potential of which will suggest salvation for the energy starved Metalunans. Despite his average looking exterior, Meacham is something of a talent, for in assembling the interocitor from the 2,487 parts supplied (none of which can be replaced) he easily passes the mental task posed by his new masters. This part of the plot was apparently carried over from the original novel. Less happy as a device are the 'neutrino rays', via which the Metalunans perform most of their more impressive activities, such as saving Meacham's plane at the start or menacing escaping cars, the zap-bang operation of which sometimes brings events to closer to B-movie level.
war-torn planet Metaluna trouble with nuclear power
This Island Earth is divided into two halves. The first shows Meacham on Earth with his friends and colleagues, deep in the investigation of Earth bound phenomena. A lot of this is grounded in the fears of 1950s' America, where aliens and the strange are frequently associated with socialistic malevolence and the Red Menace. In another film, the enigmatic Exeter could easily have be shown as promulgating the harsh communistic ideas of invaders which so dominated the genre elsewhere (his associate Brack has the necessary air of coercive-in-waiting, while the mind control technology which explicitly threatens recalls that of another colour SF of the immediate period, Invaders From Mars, 1953). Instead of proving a bogeyman, however, aside from the matter of destroying a few humans upon his hurried departure, Exeter eventually emerges as patriotic in his own cause; humane and as he contemplates his own fate, ultimately a little wistful in regards to his place in the cosmos. The second half of the film, which begins with the hurried departure into space, has a different focus - an impression aided immensely by the scenes of galactic grandeur, some of which were apparently directed by an uncredited Jack Arnold. As others have noted such moments represent some of the few times in SF cinema that the intellectualised worlds of wonder created in such pulp magazines as Campbell's Astounding Stories were fleetingly created on screen as opposed to the B-movie horrors common elsewhere. (A similar sense of awe attends the viewing of the underground workings in Forbidden Planet.) Visually impressive for its time, This Island Earth received an Academy Award for its technical effects, the look of the production, once the plot reaches Metaluna - a doomed, hollowed out planet, battered by meteorites, its iconic figure of the mutant menacing and mute in attendance, is still memorable. This famous creature with the exposed cranium, who menaces Ruth Adams in her glass tube, apparently cost the producers $24,000 and remains the single most indelible image.

Much of the film has the vividness of pulp fiction recreated successfully on screen - that is to say something of a dream, a hallucination too real to be true. Commentators have also picked up on the way the story questions issues of contemporary American isolationism, by explicitly placing a responsibility of mankind in outer space, within the needs of a distant culture. But however one interprets the film its title, and the vision, still remain etched in popular SF culture, this despite the acknowledged hokeyness of the plot and the variable acting along the way. A product of a more innocent age, perhaps, and without the benefits of modern CGI but for many, This Island Earth remains a beloved relic. Proof of this is the price of the original release on Amazon (a bare edition with speckly picture and no extras) which can go as high as $200 - although a more recent issue, still crying out for extra documentary features is more viable.

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